By Tom Still
MADISON – One of the best economic stimulus plans for Wisconsin may have less to do with federal pump-priming than with building on proven ways to turn on today’s students to science, technology, engineering and math. Some first-rate educational programs are working in Wisconsin, but progress is far from universal and even the best schools can’t do it alone. It is important to align the needs and resources of private business with what schools can, and should, offer all students.
Matching business “demand” with school “supply” is a goal of Educating a Tech-Savvy Workforce, a series of public meetings that will begin Thursday at UW-Stevens Point. The series will explain why it’s important to build a competitive workforce in Wisconsin, highlight best practices and offer ways for business leaders and others to get involved close to home.
Although polls indicate most Americans believe children are getting about the right amount of science and math education in elementary, middle and high school, others are not persuaded those students are uniformly getting a high-quality education. Some national figures help to explain the concern.
There has been a slow but steady decline in the number of U.S. college graduates with so-called STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and math) as measured against other nations. In 1975, the United States was third in per capita science-related degrees; today it ranks 17th. In 2006, 62 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States were given to foreign nationals – most of whom return home.
Part of the slide is due to the rise of market economies in nations such as China and India; they’re simply cranking out more STEM-educated children to meet the demands of their own economies. But the failure to keep pace begins in our own classrooms. Fewer students are engaged in science or math courses beyond the core requirements, in part because they’re not always exposed to the latest teaching techniques or a “hands-on” experience that highlights the fun and opportunity of science.
That’s a problem for many reasons, starting with the needs of 21st industry. Today’s manufacturing sector worker is more likely to be a technology worker, a member of a team and a problem-solver than yesterday’s assembly line worker. Whether it’s health care, information technology, biotechnology or bio-products, all of those sectors will require workers who understand science, math or even engineering.
It is vital to our economic competitiveness – as well as our national security – that American workers remain the best educated and most innovative. Losing that edge will cost the nation in ways that can only be imagined as productivity, per capita income and quality of life fall into a spiral.
There are solutions. Public and private educators as well as business leaders are coming together around programs that work.
There are solid examples of programs with private roots, but which have become a part of curriculums in public and private schools alike. They include a family of efforts affiliated with the For Inspiration of Science and Technology (FIRST Robotics, Tech Challenge, Lego League and Vex Robotics), the Badger State Science and Engineering Fair; Science Olympiad, Project Lead the Way and more.
Project Lead the Way is an instructive example. It prepares middle and high school students for careers in engineering and technology through courses that capture students’ imagination. It’s used in 2,300 schools nationwide, including 162 in Wisconsin, and is taught by existing public and private school teachers who are immersed in PTLW techniques. The track record is impressive: 73 percent of Project Lead the Way students enter engineering or tech programs, and 80 percent earn their degrees.
Private businesses can support programs such as this, not just with dollars, but with job-shadowing opportunities for students, internships and ongoing relationships with teachers or even entire schools. Visit the Wisconsin Technology Council’s website at www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com to learn about upcoming sessions on Educating a Tech-Savvy Workforce in Stevens Point, Oshkosh, Janesville, Eau Claire, Wausau and Fond du Lac.
A strong 21st century economy rests in large part on having an innovative workforce – and that includes compelling science and math education. Having the right workers close to home is the best way to grow and attract businesses that can compete in the global economy.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
Click here for a list of dates and locations for Educating a Tech-Savvy Workforce.